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What could happen if bees disappeared?

Dr Thomaé Kakouli-Duarte: "Busy as a bee" is an understatement to describe one of the most truly useful groups of animals in our planet. Bees are not only providing the world's supplies of delicious and nutritious honey, but, more importantly, they work unstoppably and tirelessly to provide the ecosystem service of pollination.

Every year in Ireland €14.5m worth of the top horticultural crops are dependent on pollination by bees, while the total pollination services provided by them is worth up to €220 million every year.

Although honeybees are widely used in pollination, bumblebees, in particular the species Bombus terrestris, are more efficient pollinators. Bumblebees are better adapted to the wet and cooler weather and they also fly longer distances, covering larger fields.

In addition, due to their longer tongues they are capable of pollinating a wider variety of plants. Commercial companies are taking advantage of this and are rearing bumblebees, which they trade exclusively for the purpose of pollination.

The future outlook for bees does not look good, though. In recent decades a general decline has been observed among honey bees and bumblebees across Europe and North America.

In Ireland, there are 20 species of bumblebees, six of which are currently threatened and have been recently added to the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The causes for bumblebee decline are loss of nesting sites, use of pesticides, climate change, and bumblebee trade, which causes a man-made spread of bumblebee diseases and loss of locally adapted genes from the native bumblebee gene pool.

If bumblebees were to disappear the consequences would be huge. One-third of the human diet comes from bee-pollinated plants. There could be a devastating effect on Ireland's dinner plate, perhaps reducing the nation to a bread and water diet.

Cattle feeding depends on bees so if the decline worsens it could have vast negative effects on the meat industry and the Irish economy in general. Moreover, as bumblebees are keystone organisms in ecosystems, their decline could directly and negatively influence birds and other fruit-eating animals, as well as a great variety of plants, causing a domino effect of ecosystem collapse.

It is therefore vitally urgent and important to conserve the bumblebee. This is one of the targets of the Molecular Ecology and Nematode Research Group at EnviroCORE in IT Carlow.

We are working to understand the effects of commercialisation on native Irish bumblebees and the effects of climate change on European populations.

We have found that the Irish bumblebees are genetically distinct from their European siblings and we wish to determine the extent of the mixing of commercial bumblebees with their native counterparts.

Irish Independent Supplement